The Lakers acquired what they thought would become their next franchise player. Instead, Dwight Howard left after one season.
Yet, Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss persistently downplayed Howard’s departure to the Houston Rockets in an interview with NBA TV on Thursday, namely because the team set up vast contingency plans way in advance with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak.
“We’ve anticipated it. When we traded for him, we basically knew we were renting him for a year,” Buss said during the broadcast of the Lakers’ Las Vegas Summer League game against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Thomas & Mack Center. “We were prepared. Mitch and I had quite a few meetings of if he leaves, this is what’s going to happen and this is what we’re going to do. If he stays, this is what’s going to happen and this is what we’re going to do. It’s not like I didn’t want him to stay. But we were very prepared so it wasn’t a shock to our system, to the Lakers fans or the Lakers organization where he left and put us in a bad spot. We were okay either way because we prepared for it.”
It seems unlikely the Lakers are in a better position without Howard than if he signed to a five-year deal worth $118 million. The Lakers may lack the drama that surrounded Howard last season, including his frustration with Kobe Bryant’s demanding personality, Mike D’Antoni’s system and the large L.A. media market. But even with a surgically repaired right back and a torn labrum in his right shoulder, Howard still averaged 17.1 points and a league-leading 12.4 rebounds. Presuming he returned with improved health and learned his first-season adversities as a learning tool, Howard could’ve dominated in the same fashion when he won three NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards in eight seasons with the Orlando Magic.
Still, the Lakers made some quality acquisitions considering the financial constraints they faced.
The Laker signed 10-year veteran center Chris Kaman to a one-year deal at the mini mid-level exception worth $3.2 million. Kaman boasts a versatile skillset with both his mid-range jumper and willingness to play on pick-and-rolls. Perhaps that might prove to be a better fit with Pau Gasol.
“He needs us just as much as we need him,” Buss said of Kaman. This is going to give him a great opportunity to play with another seven footer. He’s got a sweet touch and I’m looking forward to it.”
The Lakers also acquired former USC standout Nick Young to a two-year deal at the veteran’s minimum with a player option for his second season. His scoring mentality could prove handy should Kobe Bryant not return right away from a torn left Achilles tendon. His presence also gives the Lakers much needed speed. And though he’ll hardly fill Metta World Peace’s defensive presence at small forward, Young’s still a capable starter.
“He can shoot the lights out,” Buss said. “We neeed shooters, especially in this system. He’s very athletic and can sprint the floor, another one that fits D”Antonis system perfectly.”
The Lakers signed swingman Wesley Johnson to a one-year deal at the veteran’s minimum under $1 million. Johnson has had three uneventful seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns. He averaged 7.7 points and 2.8 rebounds in 23.1 minutes, modest numbers for a someone picked fourth overall in the 2010 NBA Draft. But he shows plenty of his potential with his versatility, shooting and perimeter defense to have a breakout season.
“Wesley johnson came and worked out for us. He was sensational. He couldn’t miss a shot,” Buss said. “You could see how long he is and athletic, another guy who fits the system. I think he was drafted fourth overall. You know there’s potential there. We’re looking forward to it. D’Antoni likes the kid a lot. he’s going to develop him. We might have a little sleeper there.”
Lastly, the Lakers acquired former UCLA standout Jordan Farmar, who became a key reserve in the Lakers’ championship runs in 2009 and 2010. Farmar’s one-year deal at $1 million marks a a significant paycut to return to his hometown after signing last year to a three-year, $10.5 million deal to play in the Turkish Basketball League.
“I’m excited. He took a lot less money,” Buss said. “He was making some very good money in Turkey. He missed being a Laker. That’s the story of a lot of people. We’re happy to accomodate him.”
The Lakers couldn’t grant the same thing to Howard. They also couldn’t make any significant deals since they’re a season removed from a $100 million payroll. Yet, Buss still finds satisfaction in the deals they made given the circumstances.
“Mitch has done a fantastic job,” Buss said. “We’ve been handcuffed. We basically can offer the one year contract to keep the flexibility we need desperately. At the same time, it was felt to us that there’s players who need us. Kaman, the last two years has been under the radar. He needs to shine. It’s a perfect spotlight for him. Take a one year deal. Get back going again. Same thing with Jordan Farmar, Nick Young, same thing. Wesley Johnson, basically same thing. You see the talent the four guys have. We got real lucky there. That’s Mitch working hard.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org